Lawyer Convicted of Wire Fraud Charges Disbarred

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A Pittsburgh real estate attorney convicted of several counts of wire fraud has been disbarred by the state Supreme Court.

John L. Chaffo Jr. was convicted in federal court of wire fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud in connection to dozens of fraudulent real estate loan transactions, according to the disciplinary board of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. Chaffo was convicted in 2010 on nine counts of wire fraud and two conspiracy counts and sentenced to serve 57 months in federal prison, according to the disciplinary board.

The court accepted the report and recommendation of its disciplinary board to disbar Chaffo on Nov. 15.

In its report, the board noted that Chaffo's "convictions are conclusive proof that [Chaffo] committed these crimes as well as incontrovertible evidence of [Chaffo's] professional misconduct."

Additionally, the board said in its report that Chaffo's refusal to recognize his guilt weighed against him as an aggravating factor.

"[Chaffo] … refuses to acknowledge his guilt," the report said. "Instead, he asserts his innocence and claims that the existence of widespread fraud within the mortgage lending environment somehow makes his conduct less culpable. In keeping with his distorted view of his actions, [Chaffo] expresses no remorse."

According to the report, Chaffo closed approximately 60 real estate loan transactions, charging anywhere from $300 to $500 as a fee. The documents related to the closings were fraudulent in that they falsely reported that the purchasers of properties made significant down payments when they had not, the report said.

In addition to the false settlement statements, according to the report, Chaffo's scheme involved elevated sales prices and purported seller-held mortgages that didn't exist.

"The victims of [Chaffo's] conspiracy lost between $1 [million] and $2.5 million," the report said.

After a July 6, 2010, jury trial in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, Chaffo was convicted of two counts of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and nine counts of wire fraud, according to the report. On Dec. 7 of the same year, Judge Donetta W. Ambrose sentenced Chaffo to 57 months imprisonment for each charge to be served concurrently.

Chaffo appealed the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. According to the report, the court affirmed Chaffo's conviction.

The Supreme Court ordered Chaffo to be placed on temporary suspension as of August 17, 2011, pursuant to the conviction, the report said.

The report said Chaffo did not appear at the disciplinary board hearing because he is currently incarcerated in West Virginia. The report also noted he waived his right to the hearing and communicated through written submissions.

According to the report, Chaffo asserted that he is the only attorney prosecuted in Pennsylvania for mortgage fraud "at a time when mortgage fraud was rampant." The report said that Chaffo believed "'any real estate lawyer could have found himself in a similar situation.'"

In making its decision to disbar Chaffo, the board looked to Office of Disciplinary Counsel v. Greene for guidance.

The report noted that in Greene, the Supreme Court in 2009 rejected the board's recommendation to suspend an attorney for five years, instead ordering disbarment after he was convicted of "only one count of conspiracy to commit mail and bank fraud, arising out of his participation to defraud mortgage lenders."

The respondent in that case, according to the report, acted as a settlement agent for the company, and with co-conspirators, used fraudulent appraisals; fabricated loan documents, nonexistent "straw" purchasers and sellers; and "any other dishonest act that was necessary to obtain artificially inflated mortgages from lenders on at least eight occasions."

In Greene, as in Chaffo's case, according to the board, the respondent refused to acknowledge his guilt.

The report noted the Supreme Court's determination that the respondent's refusal to acknowledge that guilt and his "attempt to seek mediation of discipline because his financial gain was more modest than his fellow conspirators made disbarment, rather than suspension, the appropriate sanction for professional misconduct."

The office of the secretary to the board said that Chaffo had no attorney in the disciplinary matter.

P.J. D'Annunzio can be contacted at 215-557-2315 or pdannunzio@alm.com. Follow him on Twitter @PJDAnnunzioTLI. •

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